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Virginia Beach, Va., May Implement Emergency Drones

Virginia Beach police and fire departments plan to use drones to collect evidence, control traffic, undergo search-and-rescue efforts, assist in water operations and during Amber Alerts.

(TNS) -- Virginia Beach could soon be up in the air.

The city is considering buying drones to help find missing children, respond to disasters and locate distressed boaters.

The Police Department as well as others in the city would be able to use the devices, Deputy Chief Tony Zucaro said Tuesday during a presentation to council members .

Drones might be new technology for the area, Zucaro said, but many cities already use them.

By the end of 2013, the Federal Aviation Administration had approved 550 applications to fly drones, according to the agency’s website.

Suffolk already owns one, which is used only for emergency situations such as search-and-rescue efforts, spokeswoman Diana Klink said. Norfolk, Chesapeake and Portsmouth do not own such technology.

Virginia Beach police and fire departments would like to use drones also to collect evidence and intelligence, control crowds and traffic, and help in accident reconstruction, search-and-rescue efforts, water operations and Amber Alerts.

Between Memorial Day and Labor Day in 2015, police and fire officials responded to 47 boaters in distress, 16 drownings and more than 450 lost children, said Zucaro, who added that the Police Department has been exploring the issue since summer 2014. A drone could have helped in those situations, he added.

Virginia law allows officers to use unmanned aircraft with video for major disasters, Amber Alerts and search-and-rescue operations that are “necessary to protect life, health or property.” State law also allows police to use drones during the execution of search warrants and to assess traffic damage, flooding and wildlife. The city has no guidelines on the use of drones.

Police now use a helicopter when they need an aerial view. Drones would not replace helicopters but would be used as an additional resource, Zucaro said.

The high-end drone for public safety use would initially cost $158,000, and the city estimates it could spend an additional $148,000 over the next three to five years on insurance and repairs.

A drone for other city departments would cost $2,370 and could require an additional $3,500 over the following three to five years. Zucaro said other departments that would be interested in the aircraft are: Public Utilities, Public Works, Resort Management, Economic Development and Parks and Recreation.

There was no timeline discussed at the meeting for acquiring the devices, and there would have to be a public hearing and vote beforehand.

The FAA requires government entities to apply to operate drones. Cities with approval must notify the FAA before flying them to ensure they do not interfere with aircraft. The FAA requires operators to be licensed pilots and requires them to keep the drones in line of sight.

Zucaro said Virginia Beach police would require the drone to stay within 3 to 6 miles of the operator.

“We look forward to embracing the technology,” Zucaro said.

Mayor Will Sessoms said he supported the endeavor and encouraged the Police Department to continue with the process to get the drones.

“This is a low-cost investment that could do a whole heck of a lot,” Sessoms said.

City Councilman John Moss asked Zucaro to share more information about how he plans to ensure people’s rights to privacy aren’t violated. He asked Zucaro what would happen to police officers who misused the drone. Moss said the public needs to be reassured that the Police Department would hold officers accountable .

Zucaro said his department plans to enforce robust internal policies.

“This will be closely guarded and regulated,” Zucaro said. “I understand your concerns.”

©2016 The Virginian-Pilot (Norfolk, Va.) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.